Thursday, May 24, 2018

God's Love is Not Enough (John 3:16)

"For God so loved the world . . ."

So Jesus says in the 3rd chapter of the Gospel of John

I saw a bumper sticker once that said, “God loves you. No exceptions.” I believe this is so. And I believe that just accepting that can be life-changing (see here and here). It makes a huge difference to understand that, when God looks upon you, it is with eyes of love. I know there are some who have 'tapes' recorded deeply in their hearts telling them that they are not lovable. And I appreciate that the sentiment of the bumper sticker is addressing the reality that there are groups of people who have been made to feel as though they are somehow the exception to God’s love. So, it is important to remember that when Jesus said, “God so loved the world,” that includes everyone. Every. One. “God so loved the world” – no exceptions.

But, by itself, slogan on the bumper sticker is inadequate. Even less adequate is another slogan one sometimes sees, "God loves you period". Wonderful as it is, God’s love is not enough. And there is no 'period' at the end of it because God's love means God is committed to our ongoing healing and transformation.

Just before the justly famous line in John 3:16, Jesus says, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” What’s that about? Clearly, it is a reference to the passage from the book of Numbers,

From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food." Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live." So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
– Numbers 21:4-9

It’s a strange passage. But, let’s start by reviewing the context. Israel was enslaved in Egypt. They were miserable. God heard their cry, called Moses to lead them, and through a series of miracles delivered them from their bondage, setting them on the path to the Promised Land. Soon after, they became impatient and ungrateful and began to complain about how God was managing their deliverance. We have here an example of that complaining.

"Why have you brought us up out of Egypt?”

“Well, because you asked me to. And because I love you and desire your good.”

“To die in the wilderness?”

“So far I have provided for you at every turn, haven’t I?”

“There is no food and no water.” That is an outright lie – or willful forgetting. God had miraculously provided water. God had rained down upon them the wonder of manna, "the grain of heaven," for their nourishment. And quail as well.

“We detest this miserable food." Now we’re getting a little closer to the truth. It’s not that they have no food, but that they are dissatisfied with the food God has provided. As the Psalmist sang,

So they ate and were well filled,
              for he gave them what they craved.

But they did not stop their craving,
    though the food was still in their mouths.
                                                (Psalm 78:29-30)

As a result they are afflicted by an infestation of poisonous snakes. But God commanded Moses to make a bronze snake and lift it up on a pole. If they looked at the pole, those who were perishing would live.

That is the story in Numbers. But, Jesus interprets the story allegorically as referring to himself as the “Son of Man” and what he accomplishes on the cross. What does that mean about Jesus, about us, and about God’s love?

The Hebrews in the wilderness is, as usual, representative of the attitude of humanity in general, And of each one of us. It is our story. Are we not impatient with God and one another? An early church theologian, Ephrem the Syrian, suggested that impatience might be the sin that started it all. He wrote that God all along intended us to have a share in his divinity. But, Adam and Eve, at the suggestion of the Serpent, were impatient with God’s timing and seized the fruit the serpent promised would make them like God.

Are we not often ungrateful? Discontent with enough? And more than enough? Are we not inclined to believe we are our own and that what we own is ours alone without regard for God and others? All that I have, moment by moment, I receive from God – whether I receive it gratefully or not. All creation and every person I encounter is the gift of God to be received with gratitude. But much of the time I turn my heart from God and from most others. I detest this miserable food.

Like Adam and Eve we listen to the Serpent in our impatience and ingratitude. We are ungrateful for the good things God has provided, always craving more – often enough at the expense of others. And we are ungrateful for the gift of our neighbor and the stranger who just might be messengers to us from God. And as with Israel, that turning of our hearts from God and others gives birth to the serpents of sin in our hearts, the poisonous serpents of our own impatience and ingratitude, our own envy and enmity, our own unlove. God loves us. But, our spiritual snakes make us unable to receive that love or mirror it back or reflect it adequately to one another. The serpents of our own hearts bite us and bite those around us. And we perish.

And worse, we have become addicted to the poison of our own serpents. Like an alcoholic, we are addicted to the very thing that causes us to perish. This might sound harsh, but that is because we take too lightly our own failure to attend to God and to one another, our failure to love, our lack of true generosity and hospitality. And when we turn our hearts from God, our hearts begin to breed the serpents of sin. And we perish.

Still worse, we are rather fond of our own nest of spiritual snakes and do not really believe they are snakes. We mistake their poison for an elixir of power. We both hate and love our snakes and are not sure we want to be rid of them. We cling to our suspicion of God and others, our resentments, our self-love, pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony and lust. God loves us. But, we resent and fear the awesome love of God that would extract the snakes and poison we have come to love. And we perish.

We are unable to help ourselves. That is why hearing that “God loves us with no exceptions” isn’t enough. If I am trapped at the bottom of a pit full of rattle snakes, having someone shout from the top, “I love you,” isn’t all I need. Even if that one jumps into the pit with me to tell me how much I am loved, that only does me so much good. No, I need deliverance. I need someone who can extract the poison. I need an antidote. I need someone who will come into my heart and drive out the serpents like Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. We need God to “take away the serpents from us.” The serpents in the Numbers 21 are an outward and visible manifestation of our inward and spiritual impatience, ingratitude, and selfishness. But, in the story from Numbers, God provided a means of healing through the bronze serpent attached to a pole for the people to look upon and be healed. Jesus claims that, lifted up on the cross, he will be the means of the antidote to the spiritual poison that infects us all. God loves you. No Exceptions. But, God has not left it at that. In Jesus Christ, God has also acted for your healing and deliverance,

This is the heart of the Gospel, not, ‘God is Love’ – a precious truth, but affirming no divine act for our redemption. God so loved that he gave; of course the words indicate the cost to the Father’s heart. He gave; it was an act, not only a continuing mood of generosity, it was an act at a particular time and place.

Pieter Lastman
"Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so was the Son of Man lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” God has provided the means of our redemption, our deliverance, our healing, and our restoration. God does not love us and leave us as we are, beset by the serpents of our hearts. There is no period at the end of God's love. He has acted on our behalf to drive out the snakes and heal us of their venom. Crux Est Mundi Medicina – the cross is the medicine of the world. “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ”(Ephesians 2:4).

God loves you. No exceptions. But the really good news is, "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Turn your heart to him and in trusting belief receive the gift of God and allow the Holy Spirit to deal with your snakes and their venom.

See also:

All You Need is Love – or Maybe Not

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